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University of New Mexico’s Jointly Developed Fuel Cell Technology with Daihatsu Motors Wins “Top 10 Innovation” Award at ICEF Conference in Japan

Albuquerque, NM – December 16, 2014 Technology jointly developed at the University of New Mexico and Daihatsu Motor Co., Ltd., was recently honored as a “Top 10 Innovation” at the inaugural conference of the Innovation for Cool Earth Forum held in Tokyo, Japan, on October 8.

The fuel-cell technology, developed by UNM School of Engineering Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Biological Engineering Plamen Atanassov and his team and Daihatsu Motors Executive Scientist Hirohisa Tanaka and his team, was recognized for its large-scale potential to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, its innovative method for making non-platinum-based fuel cells, and its feasibility for successful global commercialization.

ICEF is the brainchild of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who has challenged the world community to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2050. Realizing that technology innovation is the key to achieving this goal, the prime minister proposed a new international forum where government policymakers, university researchers and industry leaders could address climate change challenges through knowledge sharing and collaborative innovations in energy and environmental technologies. The event was hosted by Japan’s Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry (METI) and its New Energy and Industrial Technology Development Organization (NEDO). Co-hosts were the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MOFA) and Ministry of the Environment (MOE).

The event drew 800 participants from 80 countries and regions and held concurrent sessions on geothermal power, solar energy, automobile technologies, energy efficiency, Japan’s international smart community collaborative demonstration projects, the role of the public sector in R&D sustainable energy technologies, and how developing and developed countries can collaborate on energy technology innovations.

STC Economic Development Manager Eri Hoshi, who attended the conference on behalf of STC, noted that Prime Minister Abe stated that fuel cells, iPS cells (induced pluripotent stem cells) and robotics would be among the top three technology areas that Japan will focus on for future innovations.

“Out of 100 submissions, 21 technologies were chosen as finalists and voted on by the attendees (http://www.icef-forum.org/annual_meeting/outcomes/information/pdf/rk4_project6.pdf). Our fuel-cell technology came in at No. 4 in the top ten innovations honored. That’s pretty impressive, and it is a wonderful example of how international cooperation can produce really exciting discoveries,” she stated.

STC CEO Lisa Kuuttila said that Dr. Atanassov was recognized as an STC.UNM Innovation Fellow this year as a prolific inventor with a large portfolio of innovative fuel-cell and bio fuel-cell technologies.

“We are delighted that UNM and Daihatsu’s fuel-cell innovation was singled out by ICEF,” she said.

UNM School of Engineering Dean Joseph L. Cecchi said this is but one example of the innovative research going on at the school, as well as the way in which that research can benefit society.

“One of our focuses in the School of Engineering is to develop world-changing discoveries that solve some of our most pressing challenges,” Cecchi said. “This fuel-cell research development is a great example of not only our stellar research capabilities, but our strong emphasis on collaboration with industry partners.”

Dr. Atanassov has been collaborating with Daihatsu and its industry/university partners, the CAFÉ (Creation of Anionic Fuel Cells for the Earth) consortium, since 2007 to create non-platinum catalyst technologies for the Tanaka-led hydrazine hydrate fuel cell. He is honored to have the UNM technology recognized as an innovative solution to making fuel cells affordable and essential to accelerating the growth of the fuel-cell industry.

“The new catalyst is composed of inexpensive, earth-abundant metals, such as iron, and fully replaces the rare and expensive platinum. The price of a platinum catalyst is estimated to be nearly 40 percent of a fuel cell’s cost, being one of the critical barriers for the technology’s market deployment. The new, platinum-free fuel-cell car is also enabled by the development of an alkaline membrane as a core technology,” Atanassov said. “This technology is especially promising for the automotive market where fuel cells will play a major role in reducing greenhouse gases.”

Local start-up company Pajarito Powder is already manufacturing the non-platinum catalyst as drop-in replacement fuel-cell catalysts for the back-up and portable-power markets and is also focused on addressing the needs of the automotive market where there is high customer interest in fuel-cell technology.

Daihatsu, a company within the Toyota Group of Toyota Motor Corporation, designs and manufactures small cars and fleet vehicles for the Japanese market. Dr. Tanaka and his team designed the fuel cell for electric cars using liquid hydrazine hydrate as the fuel because it has low combustibility, is stabler than gasoline and diesel fuel, can be transported and stored in inexpensive polyethylene containers (as compared to hydrogen fuel) and discharges nitrogen and water but no carbon dioxide. Dr. Tanaka believes that the global collaboration of the CAFÉ group contributed to the technology being chosen.

“I believe the fact that our fuel-cell technology was the result of global joint research among universities, research institutions and private companies in and outside Japan was highly valued by the voters,” he said. “This honor validates our work and encourages us to accelerate our efforts to commercialize the technology.”

Daihatsu presented a prototype vehicle at the 2013 Tokyo Motor Show and has been functional testing the prototype. The collaborators hope to have a product in the market within five years.

The other top ten innovative technologies chosen at the ICEF conference included NEDO’s international smart grid projects (1), which included the smart grid/smart building demonstration projects in Albuquerque and Los Alamos; a crystal, silicon-based solar cell technology (2); a floating offshore wind power system equipped with a transmission and distribution unit (3); a perovskite-type solar cell (5); a carbon-capture and storage system for coal-fired power plants (6); a disaster-resistant microgrid technology (7); a nanostructured carbon-based catalyst electrode (LANL technology) (8); a demonstration project for a vehicle-to-building system (9); and a silicon-carbide power semiconductor for automobiles (10) (http://www.icef-forum.org/annual_meeting/outcomes/information/index.html).

Post-conference assessments revealed consensus among the participants that technological and social innovations will be key elements in tackling climate change. Governments, academia, and industry need to make cooperative, long-term commitments to promote research, development, demonstration and deployment of new technologies that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions globally. Specific recommendations included increasing opportunities for the free exchange of ideas among research institutions, creating market incentives and reforming regulatory systems for developing early stage technologies that can be adopted without unreasonable cost, removing barriers and risks for capital markets and investors to invest in clean energy technologies, developing the infrastructures and systems that will be necessary to use the new technologies, training more engineers in clean energy disciplines, and disseminating knowledge of new technologies to the general public to foster acceptance. Innovations will need to be well-engineered, cost-conscious, demonstrated and deployed in real-world settings, and widely accepted by consumers to significantly affect climate change. There was also consensus that private sector technology-transfer needs to be encouraged worldwide by supporting the rule of law and, most importantly, intellectual property law.

ICEF is providing a Web-based platform in order to promote year-round discussions in between annual forums. Visit the platform at http://icef-forum.org/platform/about.php. The next ICEF conference will be held in Tokyo from October 6-8, 2015.

See also Kevin Robinson-Avila’s December 15, 2014 article, “UNM fuel-cell technology honored in Japan,” from the Albuquerque Journal’s Business Outlook, reprinted below.

UNM fuel-cell technology honored in Japan

Copyright © 2014 Albuquerque Journal

The University of New Mexico is basking in the international limelight for developing a cutting-edge technology collaboration with Daihatsu Motor Co. Ltd. that could radically cut production costs for hydrogen fuel cells.

The technology – a new, non-metal catalyst that eliminates the need for using precious metals, such as platinum, in fuel cells – was chosen as a “Top Ten Innovation” at the first annual Innovation for Cool Earth Forum in Tokyo in October. The conference, created by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to advance innovative technologies that can reduce greenhouse gas emissions, included some 800 participants from 80 countries.

UNM and Daihatsu took fourth place out of about 100 technologies, earning the university and the automaker broad international recognition for their achievement, said Lisa Kuuttila, UNM’s chief economic development officer, and president and CEO of the Science and Technology Corp., UNM’s tech-transfer office.

“We are delighted that UNM and Daihatsu’s fuel-cell innovation was singled out,” Kuuttila said. “For UNM, it establishes us as one of the leading universities worldwide for this type of technology.”

The Top Ten honor also bodes well for Pajarito Powder, an Albuquerque startup that launched in 2012 with backing from the Verge Fund to commercialize UNM’s fuel-cell technology.

“It positions Pajarito Powder very well to be a supplier to Daihatsu and other manufacturers who want to incorporate non-metal catalysts into fuel cells,” Kuuttila said.

The technology was developed by Plamen Atanassov, UNM distinguished professor of chemical and biological engineering, who has led a team of university researchers in partnership with Daihatsu scientists since 2007. Daihatsu, Japan’s oldest automaker and a member of the Toyota Group, has provided about $1 million in funding for the research.

“Daihatsu approached me in 2007 under recommendation from Toyota because they knew our group was developing a non-metal catalyst to make a fuel cell without using precious metals like platinum or gold,” Atanassov said. “We’ve created a technology that relies on abundant, easy-to-obtain materials that include iron, nitrogen and carbon.”

Eliminating precious metals can radically reduce the expense of making hydrogen fuel cells, since the price of platinum catalysts, which are widely used today, accounts for nearly 40 percent of a fuel cell’s costs.

The catalysts, whether metal-based or otherwise, are what initiates the chemical reactions that power fuel cells, which convert hydrogen and oxygen into electricity. The catalysts cause oxygen to separate into single molecules, creating a negative charge. They also break down the hydrogen, freeing up electrons and creating a positive charge.

That creates an electric current through an environmentally friendly process that generates only waste water when the hydrogen combines with oxygen molecules. And, unlike batteries, fuel cells can produce electricity continually as long as oxygen, hydrogen and a catalyst are supplied.

Until recently, however, alternative catalyst materials that match platinum’s performance in fuel cells haven’t been commercially available. Other universities, and public and private laboratories worldwide are working to develop effective alternatives with metal and non-metal materials, but the Top Ten award in Japan helps set UNM apart, said STC economic development manager Eri Hoshi, who attended the Japanese conference.

“Out of 100 submissions, 21 technologies were chosen as finalists and voted on by conference attendees,” Hoshi said. “Our fuel-cell technology came in at No. 4 in the top ten innovations honored. That’s pretty impressive.”

Daihatsu has developed three demonstration vehicles to date with hydrogen fuel cells that use the UNM catalyst technology.

“They’ve built and shown three automobile prototypes over the past six years,” Atanassov said. “The latest one is working in the streets as a full demonstration model.”

UNM licensed the catalyst technology in 2012 to Pajarito Powder, which also obtained similar technologies from Michigan State University and Los Alamos National Laboratory. It’s now providing commercial samples of its material to customers worldwide in various industries, including the auto industry, and backup and portable power markets, said Tom Stephenson, managing partner of the Verge Fund, which invested $1 million in the company in 2012.

“This technology recognition will hopefully generate more commercial activity,” Stephenson said. “It bodes well for our business model.”

Pajarito closed in October on a follow-on round of funding. The amount of the new raise remains confidential, but it included a $100,000 contribution from UNM’s recently formed co-investment fund, plus new commitments from Verge and individual investors, Stephenson said.

Apart from the prestige earned by UNM from the Japanese recognition, plus the boost in commercial potential it provides for the catalyst technology, UNM students also benefit as participants in an internationally honored achievement, Atanassov said.

“At least eight students have participated in the project over the years,” Atanassov said. “For me, the biggest benefit is that students get to see technology that they helped develop move from the lab to the inside of a car.”



Denise Bissell
(505) 272-7310